Saturday, December 30, 2006

Consume Mass Quanitites, Rose Bowl Edition

Lawry's The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills does a special event for the Rose Bowl players called the Beef Bowl. On two separate nights, both teams get to dine to their hearts' content on prime rib, creamed, corn, mashed potatoes, and apple pie for dessert. This year, the Michigan team downed a whopping 612 pounds of prime rib. Dayum.

On a sad note, the vast majority of the cooked to order prime rib was served well done.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

It's That Time of Year Again

I had a family get-together at Old People's Country Buffet this past weekend. Dear Lord, I forgot how incredibly horrid the food is over there. Especially frightening standouts included "Risotto-Style Rice", a gloppy blend of long-grain rice with chopped broccoli and cheese sauce; a hot fudge pudding cake noted for its almost complete lack of flavor; and... enchiladas. There are certain things I will do in the name of my dear readers, but touching one of those dried out things with a ten-foot pole is not one of them. When the $1.99 breakfast* at IKEA looks like a truly terrific alternative, there's something seriously wrong with the picture, n'est-ce pas? Oh, speaking of IKEA, my morbid curiosity got the better of me, and I tried their Thursday night dinner special of prime rib. It's a good sized cut, I'm going to guess about 12 or 14 ounces, and thankfully pink in the middle. It came with a baked potato and vegetables for 8 bucks. While it certainly wasn't close to what you'd get at a decent steakhouse, it was better than it had any right to be for the price. Maybe some time I'll go see if they do a decent job with lobster on Tuesday night.

Anyway, back to the holiday goings-on. After we left the buffet, it was off to Grandpa's place to exchange gifts. I put together the exact same thing for everyone, a deluxe treat plate. Included was half a pound cake, some colossal loaded oatmeal cookies (loaded with Montmorency cherries, cranberries, pecans, and bittersweet chocolate), crispy chocolate chip cookies, and not one but two kinds of fudge. Ah, fudge, the fruitcake of the 21st century. Every single square of homemade fudge I have ever eaten in my entire life has been the too-sweet, slightly grainy kind with not nearly enough chocoate flavor. I swear everyone out there has the exact same recipe, the one with evaporated milk and Marshmallow Fluff.

Everyone except yours truly, that is.

This year, I tried out the recipe Cook's Illustrated published in their recent issue. It is:

1 pound finely chopped semisweet chocolate
2 ounces finely chopped unsweetened chocolate
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt

tossed in a bowl until the baking soda and salt are nicely distributed. Then, you add a 14 ounce can of sweetened condensed milk, and stir to coat the chocolate. The bowl then gets set over a pan of simmering water, and the contents get stirred until the chocolate has almost melted. Then, pull the bowl off the pan (be careful of the escaping steam), stir it until all of the chocolate has melted, and mix in a cup of coarsely chopped toasted walnuts. The whole mess then goes into a foil lined and greased 8 inch square pan, and put in the fridge for a couple of hours until the fudge has set up enough to be taken out of the pan and cut into squares.

This stuff is truly amazing fudge. The unsweetened chocolate gives a good flavor boost, and the little bit of baking soda reacts with the acidity of the chocolate to keep things light. I may play around with this recipe... I'm tempted to pick up some of the Andes mint baking chips and see how those turn out.

*The breakfast at IKEA is bacon, scrambled eggs, cottage fries, Swedish (what did you expect?) pancakes with lingonberry sauce, and coffee. Yes, all that for less than a latte at Starbucks. If you want the price of breakfast at IKEA to remain reasonable, have plans for what to do after breakfast. Otherwise, you might feel like going for a wee bit of a stroll, and oh why look there's a whole store to wander through right here!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

It's a new feature!

I found something that I thought was very cool, and think it will make a worthwhile addition to the site. It's called Meebo, and is visible in the sidebar to the right. If I'm online, you can chat with me directly from this site. Feel free to ask me anything about Phoenix area food, cooking, or whatever else is on your mind. Particularly noteworthy conversations just might end up here on the site.

Jester Relocation Project

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to announce that I have finally moved from out in the sticks to my own place in central Phoenix. While this does mean I likely won't been seen as much at some of my favorite old haunts, there's tons and tons of exploring to do in this part of town.

Red Devil has quickly earned a place in my heart for being a darn near perfect neighborhood pizza joint. The pizza there is very chow-worthy indeed. I am thankful that La Madeleine still exists in the Valley at 32nd Street and Camelback, in the same shopping center as Delux. I went there about a week or so ago after a very long day of moving things into the new apartment, and remembered that La Madeleine is one of the best places in town for soothing comfort food. The atmosphere is warm and inviting, with a French country house feel and classical music playing gently on the sound system. All of the food I have had there has been absolutely delicious, certainly the cream of the crop as far as chains go. It certainly isn't cheap as far as quick-service outlets go; we each had a glass of wine, cup of soup, and an entree, and our bill came close to 40 dollars. However, I would say that it is most certainly worth it. Grocery shopping is certainly more enjoyable now; there's Trader Joe's, Phoenix Ranch Market, and Sprouts all within two or three miles of here. Previously, it was 5 miles to Basha's, 20 miles to the nearest Trader Joe's. I will miss the easier access to Super Target, they have some really great things over there.

One thing I love about having my new place is that I can have friends over and cook for them much easier than before. I'm so thrilled that I have a gas stove now! It's made cooking so much more enjoyable already. I inaugurated the kitchen last night with a Chinese dinner of orange flavored chicken, and beef with broccoli. According to the recipes it should have served eight people. There were five of us, and the only thing left was a bunch of rice (I always make extra rice so fried rice is a quick dinner option in the near future), and several strips of bell pepper that were in the beef with broccoli. So much for the idea of taking leftovers to work! I do know now that making stir-fry in this place does have some advance prep work. Namely, open the patio door, close the bedroom doors, turn on the vent hood, and toss a wet washcloth over the living room smoke alarm until I'm done cooking.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Live report from superstition springs mall: Melt Gelato opening in the near future. Can they unseat the Lombardo clan for my favorite gelato in Phoenix? Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Bites: Waffle House, Chandler AZ

I had a Waffle House craving recently. I went to the one in Chandler, and I'll be damned if it wasn't one of the best breakfasts I've had in recent memory. It was 1 AM. I was absolutely famished after a long day at work, and for whatever reason, I was craving Waffle House. My friend and I slid into a booth. I got the All-American Combo, featuring two eggs, bacon (or sausage if you prefer), hash browns (or grits), toast (I went with raisin), and a waffle, all for $6.99. A few extra coins got the hash browns scattered, smothered, covered, and topped (set loosely on the grill, with grilled onions, cheese, and chili), and pecans added to the waffle. I realized it was a little too quiet in there, and put some Aretha Franklin on the jukebox. We chatted, we watched the cook make our chow, and then our waitress brought the food over. Everything was sheer bliss. The eggs were cooked exactly right, the bacon was just the perfect crispness, the hash browns nice and crisp, and the waffle... oh the waffle was terrific. I have not had satisfaction from an all-night diner like this in a very, very long time. I may end up going out of the way to the Chandler Waffle House just because it was so damn good.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A bientôt, mon ami.

The La Madeleine at Scottsdale Fashion Square in Scottsdale, AZ has closed after a twelve year run. I will miss them greatly, I doubt that I will ever get to dine on real plates with real flatware and drink from stemware in the middle of a mall food court again. Merci beaucoup for the memories, La Madeline!

Thankfully, there is still La Madeleine's unique charm to be had in town, just down the road at 32nd Street and Camelback in Phoenix, same shopping center as Delux.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Review: AZ88, Scottsdale, AZ

First off, my apologies for not posting much on here. I've been having plenty of food adventures, but haven't been feeling the urge to write. There is more to come, including trips to Fate in Phoenix, and the Creole legend Commander's Palace in Las Vegas. Now, on to your regularly scheduled review.

Through my time on Chowhound, I have noticed that legendary reviewer Seth Chadwick and I have had more than a bit of synchronicity. There have been several times that one of us has reviewed something, and the other had just recently either been to that restaurant or had some other similar experience. You know how Seth Chadwick's most recent review was of Blu Burger Grill? AZ88 is a posh Scottsdale burger joint. Like Bette Davis uttered in All About Eve, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night."

My experience started off well enough, meeting up with a bunch of my friends from work. We got a banquette table big enough for all of us. The whole place is very modern and comfortable, with sleek, reasonably comfortable furnishings all over the place. I'm glad they weren't very busy; the combination of cathedral ceiling and lack of soft surfaces would surely make it almost impossible to hear anything when the place is hopping. I looked through their cocktail menu and noticed one of their feature cocktails was the legendary Sazerac, a combination of rye whiskey, a dash of Herbsaint (a New Orleans creation made as a substitute for absinthe), Peychaud's Bitters, and a little bit of sugar to mellow things out. If you haven't had a Sazerac before, I can tell you it is certainly worth seeking one out. Don't do it at AZ88, though. They put too much sugar in there, making it taste more like a whiskey punch. Thankfully, there wasn't so much sugar that it wasn't drinkable, just enough that the noticeable flavor was just sweet instead of the desired balance of sweet and strong. I could have sworn they put some Sprite in there (heaven forbid), but maybe my taster was just off.

Our server was obviously new to serving; he half-heartedly asked if we wanted appetizers, then sort of wandered off. An off-duty server from AZ88 was sitting with us, and *she* ended up taking our order instead. If a brand new server is THIS green, he has no business trying to wrangle a table of 8 on his own. He really should have had some kind of help instead of just getting thrown to the wolves like this. I can't fault him for this, but he certainly left me plenty to fault him for nonetheless. I ordered their Burger Au Poivre II, a peppercorn-crusted burger with a burgundy wine sauce, topped with blue cheese and bacon; thankfully, AZ88 will let you do your burger medium-rare, and that's exactly how I ordered it. I waited a while for my burger, my drink sat empty, and eventually my burger arrived. It was well done. The accompanying fries were both overcooked and cold. I already wasn't happy from the lack of server attention, this did not make things any better. I sat for a few minutes, trying to get the server's attention. He got a drink order from the girl next to me, I tried to signal him and thought I made eye contact with him, and he left. He brought the lady's drink, and left again. The off-duty server (you might notice I'm not mentioning the off-duty server's name, there is a reason for this you'll find out soon enough) noticed that I was absolutely steaming at this point. She then took the burger back to the kitchen to get remade. At this point, I was very much ready for another drink. I went against my good judgment and ordered something that tends to be a bit tricky to make, a classic cocktail called the Monkey Gland. It's a mix of gin and orange juice, with a dash of Pernod and a dash of grenadine, served straight up. It's a simple enough cocktail, but there's a twist that will trap all but the most seasoned bartenders; Pernod is a particularly strong liqueur. Use too much and it will completely take over the drink. The bartender used too much, and you couldn't taste anything but Pernod. To compound the problem, the bartender barely shook the drink before pouring it, and therefore was a good bit warmer than the ice-cold that I was expecting. There are few things in life less pleasant than warm gin.

When my remade burger came out, the burger was done to the right temperature and everything was hot, but the fries were oversalted almost to the point of inedibility. The burger itself was dominated by the blue cheese, and the beef was almost flavorless. I think the bun was specially made for them, as I hadn't seen one like it anywhere else, but it was flabby bread that threatened to surrender to the juices from the medium rare burger, and offered no substance or flavor of its own to add to the burger. The one shining part of the burger was the bacon; nice, thick-cut bacon with some good smoky flavor of its own. I somehow ate half of the burger, but I was feeling too vitriolic at this point to want any more food.

I finally managed to get the waiter's attention, and did get a glass of water from him to quench the excess sodium on the fries. He was quick to get the water (it would have been nicer if he offered some at the start!), but the glass was eight ounces at most. It's water, it's free, could you at least give me more than three swigs? I drained it in five seconds, and by some miracle caught his eye so he could get me another. After the second water, I never saw him near the table again except to get me a box for the rest of my burger. At this point, I wrote off the complete meal as a loss. I went for the manager (I would have asked the server for the manager, but I wasn't about to wait another twenty minutes for him to appear again). I explained to him how everything was off for me and the server was still much too wet behind the ears. I got something that resembled an apology, along with an explanation that this was the server's first night on the floor. The manager said he'd be over at my table in a few minutes. He never came. Instead, he sent the off-duty server over with a revised check that comped my ridiculously screwed up burger. Hey, Manager! If you say you're going to do something, you really should do it, especially if the person you you were talking to is not a happy camper. I understand that bad things happen all the time; the true service level of a restaurant is most evident when taking care of an angry customer. At this absolutely essential point of service, you failed. Miserably.

My Sazerac was eight dollars, the Monkey Gland was a whopping eleven bucks. Apparently, a pour of their house gin is 9 dollars (and they don't even have the decency to use a name-brand liquor at that price! I don't even WANT to know how much it would have been if I asked for Tanqueray), and for the privilege of rinsing the ice with Pernod, they charge 2 dollars. Two bucks for half a teaspoon of Pernod? You have absolutely GOT to be kidding. The markup on that is something like 20 times the cost. Even with the comped food, I felt like I was getting way, way overcharged. But then, this is the heart of downtown Scottsdale, where people somehow think that because they're paying too much, the place must be really great.

The very last straw was when I was paying up, still incensed at the combination of pitiful service and overpriced everything. I was grumbling at how I felt ripped off by the experience, and then the off-duty server opened her yap, and said in a very snide tone, "Well if you don't like it, you don't have to come back." I was ready to tip the off duty server quite nicely for being so helpful during the meal, but after mouthing off to me like that, I decided my money would stay right in my wallet. Damn right I won't come back! I'll go over to Delux, where they serve up much better burgers for less, pour well-made, generously sized cocktails, and the servers don't act like I'm making their social hour difficult by expecting a refill on my water.

Ratings below are on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being high. Occasionally, zeros and sixes may be awarded for exceptional cases.

Scottsdale Civic Center (south of Indian School and Drinkwater)
Food: 1 (I hated it)
Service: 0 (Not Acceptable)
Atmosphere: 4 (I liked it)
Overall: 1 (I hated it)
Value: 1 (Very poor)
Kid Friendly: 2 (Not a good idea)
Open for: Lunch Mon-Fri, Dinner, Late Night

Monday, August 21, 2006

I was thrilled to see the McDonald's on Southern west of Dobson had completely disappeared, leaving a pile of rubble in its wake. Then I noticed the sign on the chain link fence stating it would reopen in late November. Oh well, those three seconds in the interim were glorious.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Good news, and better news!

First, the good news: Trader Vic's got quite the good review in the Phoenix New Times.

The better news: The rat bastard Stephen Lemons isn't doing the food review anymore! The new gal is so much easier to read. Thank goodness.

Friday, June 23, 2006

I Hate Being Sick

I've had some wicked bug for the last five or six days. I thought it was done for, then it came back for Round 2 after a hellish evening at work. But that's more than you need to know. The thing I hate about being sick is that it COMPLETELY throws off any Chowhoundish nature I have. Gimme a ton of Gatorade and a box of Ritz crackers when I have the flu, and I couldn't be happier. Tonight, for some reason I was craving mashed potatoes, and WOW they came out absolutely perfect. I took a pound of potatoes in their skins, brought them to a boil, and then let them simmer until I could poke one with a paring knife and it slid right back into the water. I drained off the potatoes, and put them through a ricer (easily the fastest way to do mashers- just cut them in half, put one half in the ricer cut side down, and press through. The skin stays in the ricer hopper) back into the hot pan. Then, in went 4 tablespoons of very well softened butter and then 1/2 cup of warm milk (I would have used half and half or maybe some heavy cream, but the half and half I found in the back of the fridge was close to collecting Social Security). That last bit is very important, the butter, THEN the milk. If you mix them in at the same time or mix in the milk first, the starch in the potatoes will soak up the water content in the milk and make something resembling glue; mixing in the butter first coats the starch with fat so that it won't soak up all that moisture. Then in go the seasonings (about 3/4 teaspoon of salt and some ground black pepper are mandatory, I also added some Brady Street Cheese Sprinkle from Penzey's), and it's done. They're wonderfully fluffy, silky smooth, and just oh so wonderful.

Monday, June 05, 2006


I just recently tried the lemonade recipe from the current issue of Cook's Country, and dayum, that's some great lemonade! It's certainly easy enough- cut one lemon into thin slices, and muddle it with 1-1/2 cups of sugar, using a potato masher or similar large blunt object, until the sugar starts to dissolve. Add 7 cups of water and 2 cups fresh lemon juice, strain out the lemon slices, stir well, chill, and serve. If you like, you can add 2 cups of strawberries (or other berries, or even go crazy and try peaches or mangoes, the possibilities are endless!), 1 cup of fresh mint leaves, or 1/4 cup of grated fresh ginger to the lemon slices and sugar before muddling.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Cooking: Grill Madness

I live in the Phoenix area. It gets hot around here. No, wait, I take that back. It gets really damn hot around here. Today the high was somewhere over 110 degrees. Needless to say, I spent as much of the day as possible indoors. Eventually, dinner sounded like a good idea, and cooking anything indoors did most certainly NOT sound like a good idea. So, I decided to fire up the grill and put together a feast. I knew that the main course was going to be some kind of grilled chicken breast (a freezer staple item around here), and then started to scavenge around for other possible items to throw on the grill. I almost did a cold rice salad since we have some leftover rice on the fridge, but my love of baking prevailed and I made grilled garlic flatbread. Also on the side were grilled green beans, and grilled fruit for dessert.

The chicken itself was simple enough. I wasn't in the mood for a BBQ or sweet and sour glaze (both of which I had in the fridge), so I put together one made out of hoisin sauce, soy sauce to loosen up the mixture and provide savoriness, honey for an additional sweet note, orange muscat champagne vinegar to brighten the mix (I would have used rice vinegar but I was out... shhhhh don't tell), and some red chile flakes for spice, and took a taste. I could tell it needed something, but wasn't sure what. Off to the overflowing spice rack I went to see what I could do. Eventually, the jerk spice blend caught my eye. I added a very generous sprinkle, and was most pleased with the result. A dash of black pepper rounded things out. The chicken was an easy preparation- brush the glaze on one side, grill glazed side down, brush more glaze on, flip, and cook until done.

Grilled flatbread technically was a very simple grilled pizza topped with nothing more than extra-virgin olive oil and kosher salt. I started out by sauteing garlic and thyme (I should have used the fresh rosemary on the back porch, but alas I forgot about it) in 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then blending that into 4 cups of flour, a packet of rapid-rise yeast, and 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt in the food processor. Then, I pulsed in 1-1/2 cups of warm (110 F/43C) water, kept pulsing until the dough came together, then let the processor run for 30 seconds. After a couple of kneads on the counter, I let it rest until doubled, split it into 8 pieces, pulled each one into a nice little ball, and let them rest under a damp towel for a few minutes so I wouldn't have to fight the gluten. I then squished each one out into 1/4 inch thick rounds, placed them on floured cookie sheets (you think I'm letting my wood pizza peel anywhere near the griddle? Yeah right!), and took them out to the grill. Once there, I brushed extra-virgin olive oil on each piece of dough, gave it a good sprinkle of kosher salt, and placed it oil side down on the grill. I let it cook for a couple of minutes until it was set and had grill lines on one side, then brushed on more oil (the flare-ups from drips were thrilling to say the least!), gave them a flip, and cooked them for a few minutes on the other side before pulling them off the grill. These came out absolutely fantastic. I can see myself putting this together every time we're planning on doing grilled meat for dinner.

Making Jamaica

I tried out the recipe over on for jamaica, a Mexican agua fresca (the name translates literally to "fresh water"; aguas frescas are a blend of fruit, sugar, and water) made from hibiscus blossoms. I used 3 ounces of the hibiscus flowers, 1 cup of sugar, and a gallon of water. To start, I got the water to a boil, then added the hibiscus and sugar. Once it returned to a boil, I let the mixture simmer for 10 minutes, then strained out the hibiscus flowers and let it chill. It turned out pretty good, but I think it could be stronger on hibiscus and definitely sweeter too; it had a light, pleasant sweetness, but didn't have the right sweetness level to taste like every other agua fresca that I've had. I know that next time it would greatly help to have a lid on the pot, I lost almost a quart of water to the combination of evaporation and the hibiscus absorbing liquid. Speaking of which, one of these times I'll try squishing down the hibiscus to get some good concentrated flavor back into the pitcher where it belongs.

I'd like to try fixing the sweetness and strength levels at the same time, but I would prefer to fix one variable at a time in the recipe. The first will be adjusting sweetness, then seeing if pressing the hibiscus will make for a stronger end product, then finally adjusting the amount of hibiscus leaves. In Cook's Country, they just published a recipe for some positively delicious lemonade, and it uses 1/2 cup of sugar for every 3 cups of liquid; I think I'll do 2 cups of sugar next time, and go from there.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Wow, that was yum

Thanks everyone for bearing with me through this period of Not Much Posting. I have been in training for Trader Vic's, which means I have a brand new job, and *that* means I don't have much money coming in... yet. Thankfully, that all changes starting tomorrow. I have now tasted everything on the menu, and I think I can safely tell you that everything on the menu is very good. The appetizers were for the most part very impressive; my favorite was the Crab Rangoon (they use actual Dungeness crab in it!) and the calamari with wasabi mayo. The calamari has a tempura-style batter on it, is cooked perfectly, and the wasabi mayo side adds just the right flavors. For first courses, you can't go wrong with either of the soups. The Bongo Bongo soup is a Trader Vic's original, a very savory cream of spinach soup enhanced with oysters. Their Won Ton Soup is bar none the best I've had anywhere, very fresh tasting with deeeeelicious won tons. On the main course, you have GOT to try things from the wood fire oven. The most outstanding dishes from the oven were the pork chops, ribeye steak, and Indonesian rack of lamb. Items from the woks were also excellent; dishes such as the chicken chow mein and kung pao chicken are all perfectly executed, and the Szechwan Prawns are unbelievable, the sauce on them is so good I picked up my tasting plate and licked it clean. The desserts were for the most part nothing out of the ordinary, except for the chocolate macadamia nut tart, and the rum ice cream with pecan praline sauce. The coffee creme brulee is quite good, but after the time I made classic creme brulee at home, I'm completely spoiled on my version. So, my ultimate dinner for two at Trader Vic's:

Cocktails: Tiki Bowl for two (or just about anything, all the cocktails are out of this world)
Appetizer: Crab Rangoon (and maybe some calamari too)
First Course: Trader Vic's Salad and Won Ton Soup (shared between us)
Main Course: BBQ Pork Chop and Szechwan Prawns
Desserts: Rum Ice Cream and Sorbet Trio (the BBQ meats are very rich and scream for a light fruity dessert afterward) with a coffee drink

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Preview: Trader Vic's

As some of you may know, I'm in training to be a server at the new Scottsdale location of Trader Vic's. It's been rough, I tell ya... learning about all the products by tasting them. We got our first taste of the food tonight, and all I can say is WOW. What we tasted tonight was utterly amazing. The staff who has worked at other Trader Vic's locations are telling me "Wait till we get to the really good stuff!"

I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Cooking: Lemon Meringue Pie

I recently picked up a copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible at Bookman's. For quite some time, I've been waiting for a craving for one of the specific pies in this weighty tome to strike; there's so many absolutely phenomenal looking things in here, there's just no way to choose except to wait for a craving to strike. It finally did, and its name was lemon meringue. I can definitely say that Beranbaum's instructions are quite well written, I never felt like I was at a loss for what to do next. There are three parts to a lemon meringue pie; the crust, the filling, and the meringue topping. The crust she recommended was the Basic Flaky Pie Crust, and then for an especially light meringue that won't weep, an Italian meringue, made by whipping hot sugar syrup into beaten egg whites.

The recipe itself isn't too bad; bake the crust, make the filling and add to the hot crust, make meringue and top the pie, then bake until the top is nicely browned. This time through, everything but the crust has been chalked up to a learning experience. I was going off the visual cues that Beranbaum gave for the cooked filling (thick, smooth, and translucent) and not the temperature the cooked filling was supposed to reach (190 degrees F). Next time, it's getting cooked to 190. When I picked the pie up off the cooling rack, I saw the meringue jiggle around. Uh oh. My fears were confirmed when I tried to pick up the first slice; I made lemon meringue soup.

The meringue also was also much less than perfect; this was my first time doing an Italian meringue, where hot sugar syrup is beaten into whipped egg whites. For what it's worth, this was my first time that I'd done anything involving the culinary napalm that is boiling sugar syrup. I now know for next time to not scrape out the pan when transferring the hot syrup to another vessel. As you may guess by now, there were little chips of sugar flint all through the meringue.

Then there was the pie crust... oh Lord, was there the pie crust. If the pie crust is any indication, I'm going to have people begging me for the recipe once I have the lemon filling and meringue down pat. It was far and away the best pie crust I've ever eaten... it was tender, yet incredibly flaky, and for once it was a blind-baked crust that didn't shrink in the oven! I'd better be careful, I might end up making the pie crust and baking it just to eat it... wow, it was good stuff.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Signs You're Dating a Chowhound

This should be fun...

1) They take you to a restaurant you have never heard of, in a part of town that you normally wouldn't venture into.

2) You recommend a really trendy restaurant and they look at you like you grew a second head.

3) You try to take them to Olive Garden and they threaten to break up with you.

4) They have a cookbook on their nightstand.

5) If you take them out for dinner and a movie, they don't care a whit about the movie.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Cooking: Pan Pizza from Cook's Country Magazine

We did the pepperoni pan pizza from the most recent issue of Cook's Country magazine and it is pretty darn good. There's a couple of minor tweaks I'd make... First is to do more herbs in the sauce than 2 cloves of garlic for a 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes. Second is that I wish the dough was a bit richer... maybe substituting some melted butter for some of the olive oil would do the trick? Other than those, it came out absolutely wonderful. I loved their trick of microwaving the pepperoni in between a few layers of paper towels to get rid of the grease; puddles of orange oil have plagued more than one pizza I've made, and this one had none of it. I can see doing triple batches of this instead of calling out for Papa John's again the next time everyone wants pizza.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Chowhound Rules of Thumb

Something I've been meaning to do for a while is the Chowhound Rules of Thumb. These are various things about restaurants that will be true just about no matter what. Some time soon I'll make this a sticky article and put it up on the sideboard. And maybe I'll update the recent CDs, I keep picking them up and am about 15 behind. This list will most certainly grow with time, and feel free to suggest your own. If I like it enough I'll use it as part of the list.

#1: If a restaurant has a special gimmick, the restaurant will use that gimmick for all it's worth in hopes that you won't notice how bad the food is.
Corollary: If the restaurant moves in any way, whether it's because it's on a boat, or rotates at the top of a building, this goes double. Especially if it rotates at the top of a building.
Corollary 2: If they offer dinner and a show at the same time (such as Medieval Times does), the food will be industrial fare no better than from a Hometown Buffet.

#2: If there is an adjective as part of the name, such as "authentic" or "good", the opposite will be true. This goes both ways, I've heard good things about a place called Terrible's.

#3: Places that leave the cents off the menu (Filet of sole........... 23) charge 2 dollars more than they should for an entree.

#4: If jalapeño poppers are on the appetizer list, anything on the menu that could come from a bag in the freezer (i.e. 90 percent of the appetizers and at least half of the sides) comes from a bag in the freezer.

#5: Things wrapped in bacon taste really good. If the best praise you've heard about a restaurant is "The bacon wrapped (insert foodstuff here)" is AMAZING!" go elsewhere for dinner.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Tasting: Coke Blak

I'm intrigued by the vast line-up of flavored sodas to give a twist on classic beverage fare. In the last few years we've seen coke with cherry, vanilla, cherry and vanilla, lemon, lime, and goodness knows what else I missed. The gurus at the Coca-Cola company have come up with yet another iteration of their timeless drink. Coke Blak is certainly an interesting twist... coffee flavored Coke. It works better than it sounds... the coffee sparks the mild acidity of Coke, while the spices in the Coke do great things to the coffee. Now if only they'd use sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup... aie. It's available in glass bottles at convenience stores.

Review: Burger King, Scottsdale AZ

I tried out some new mass market products today, and thought I might as well tell you all about it, since this is a food blog and all. First up was the new french toast breakfast sandwich from Burger King. I will start out by mentioning I absolutely despise BK. They're bland as hell, unless the food is overly salty, their menu board is in desparate need of a new color, and they just try WAY too hard to be "edgy". I think the idea going through my head when I went there this morning was "If I buy one, will you PLEASE stop playing those damn ads?"

I get to the drive-thru and order the sammitch with ham on it (knowing full well that their sausage is positively horrid), a medium order of the Cheesy Tots that someone was telling me about, and my standard fast food breakfast beverage, orange juice (I'm reminded of putting hot fudge on frozen yogurt... it's still bad for you, but hey it's yogurt so it's a little healthy, right?). I pull around to the window, pay up with plastic, see my food sitting in the drive-thru window while the drive-thru person goes and takes care of something else (apparently one guest at the counter and one at the drive-thru constitutes a major rush for these people), and eventually get my food. I check in the bag and see the sammitch, and a small order of hash browns. Grr. I do understand these things happen, so I went in and told the person at the counter what happened. They looked at it, took the hash brown order out of the bag and put it back under the heat lamp (!), then put in my correct order. Before I got my correct order, the drive-thru person protested that I hadn't paid for that one. Holy christ. I've worked in the service industry for a very, very long time, and have learned two simple rules:

1) If there is a problem, the customer is right.
2) If the customer is wrong, see rule 1.

For something as minor as a miscommunication on an order, all that should happen is a swift apology and fixing the order. Protesting that you think you're right should never, EVER be done.

Anyway, once I got things fixed and back on the road, I started chowing down. The french toast sandwich is almost as good as the McGriddle sandwiches from McDonalds... in other words, it sucks. Their eggs are almost flavorless, the cheese completely unnoticeable after it got absorbed by the bread, and the bread has the same blah feel as a French toast stick. The only thing even remotely good was the ham, which was sliced nicely thin and had some flavor to it. I think if for some reason I go back to Burger King for breakfast, I'll do this with no egg, extra cheese, and hope to God they have raspberry jam, and have a luxurious Monte Cristo sandwich for breakfast. Well, at least a somewhat reasonable facsimile of one. The cheesy tot things were quite possibly one of the worst things I have eaten in a very long time. It was something that tasted sort of like cheese with little bits of almost cooked potato, wrapped in breading and deep fried. It was kinda cheesy, kinda crisp, but mostly a pasty mess. Whoever mentioned them with a smile in the first place should fear my wrath, and then I'll make him a breakfast that actually tastes good. Oh, and as for the orange juice... something that has a little bit of pulp in it won't kill us. Really.

And what an honor, Burger King has received the first ever score on What the Jester Had for Dinner of 0 on the 1 to 5 scale. The normal scale is:

5: I love it!
4: I like it.
3: It's OK.
2: I don't like it.
1: I hate it!

On rare occasions, you'll see the 0, which stands for Not Acceptable. This is for those times that something is just plain unforgivably awful, such as the double whammy of implying that I did something wrong AND putting food that had been given to a guest back on the serving line. Whatever the offense, it is absolutely certain that I will never, EVER visit the place again. On the other end is the 6, which will simply be known as "Oh. My. God." These are the places that do things just so extraordinary that you tell EVERYONE you know about it, from friends and family to the checker at the grocery store. If you see me rate something a 6, for goodness sakes get over there NOW. Just stay the hell away from Burger King.

Burger King
Scottsdale Rd north of the 202
Food: 1
Service: 0 (Not Acceptable)
Atmosphere: 2
Overall: 1
Value: 2
Price: 1 (Cheap Eats)
Kid Friendly: 4
Open for: B, L, D

Noooo... One of my favorite places for a Chinese lunch, Jasmine Palace on Scottsdale and Thunderbird, has closed up shop. The chocolate wontons will be sorely missed, along with the lunch buffet that was, for once, some outstanding chow.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Review: Houston's, Scottsdale AZ

Again, not much in a writing mood right now...

In a nutshell, it's an above average chain. The food is solid but uninspired (and sometimes overseasoned),

6113 N Scottsdale Rd
Scottsdale, AZ 85250
(480) 922-7775
Overall: 3
Food: 3
Service: 4
Atmosphere: 4 (Almost a 5, but like so many other restaurants it was too noisy)
Price: 3-4
Value: 2
Open For: L, D
Kid Friendly? 2

Review: Los Sombreros, Scottsdale AZ

Full review on the way when I think about it... for now, here's the numbers.

Overall: 4
Food: 4
Service: 3
Atmosphere: 5
Prices: 3-4
Value: 3
Hours: D
Kid Friendly: 3

Monday, March 27, 2006

I Got New Equipment!

A friend of mine realized that he wasn't using his stand mixer very much, and decided to sell the thing off for 20 bucks. It's a KitchenAid K5SS mixer, made by Hobart. He gave me first dibs on it. Naturally, I pounced on it like a fat kid on a cupcake. It now resides very happily in my kitchen, permanently on the counter because it's damn heavy... this thing is built like a tank. It has all of the standard attachments, plus a combination food grinder and pasta extruder. I am absolutely THRILLED to finally have a KitchenAid mixer in the house. We do have a Bosch around here, but it almost never sees the light of day because it's such a pain in the ass to use.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Making Sorbet

Someone around the house picked up a tub of Dreyer's Slow Churned Light strawberry ice cream. As one can imagine with products that were never virtuous but made less bad for oneself, it was wholly unsatisfying. It just didn't taste like strawberry unless you hit the ribbon of strawberry flavored swirl, and even then it just tasted sweeter. So, I decided to take matters in my own hands and made some berry sorbet. I went off the Cook's Illustrated recipe, and started by pureeing 3 cups of berries with 1/2 cup of water in the food processor, and then strained out the solids. I added a cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, and 1 tablespoon of rum (the recipe specifies vodka or berry liqueur, but I don't have either around here, and what would a strawberry daiquiri be without rum?), mixed it well, and let it chill first in the fridge, then the ice cream freezer. Once it reached relatively frozen consistency, I transferred it to a container and let it finish freezing in the freezer. The end product, while tasty, was much softer than I prefer. This would likely be due to the large amount of sugar. Sugar lowers the freezing point of the mixture; not enough and you end up with something hard and icy, too much and you end up with sorbet that doesn't freeze all the way through. I'll keep working on the recipe until I get it nailed down.

UPDATE: The sorbet needed an overnight stay in the fridge, not just a couple of hours. It's wonderful now.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Reviews: Wolf Creek Brewing Co, Valencia CA and Pink's, Los Angeles CA

First off, big thanks to the Los Angeles Chowhounds. If it wasn't for you, this review wouldn't be possible. Alas, I didn't get to try as many of the suggestions as possible because I asked about the Valencia area and our hotel was in Pasadena 40 minutes away (I wish I had known before I got in the car to head over, there's some great looking stuff around there!), but I appreciate the help.

We went to Wolf Creek in Valencia after spending the day at Magic Mountain, and absolutely loved it. One friend of mine got the tri tip dinner, another friend got the meatloaf special, and I went with the blackened chicken pasta. All were utterly wonderful, and the portions quite generous, something we were glad about after not eating much at Magic Mountain (10 bucks for nachos that would cost 4 outside the park will do that to you!). I thought my dish was the best one; it had a good balance of pasta to veggies and chicken, the veggies were cooked just right, the pasta was al dente, and the level of seasoning was just right. We split a slice of the caramel chocolate chip cheesecake for dessert, and were pleasantly surprised when we found out it was on the house.

The next day, we were going to meet up with some friends for lunch in Hollywood, but we quickly scuttled those plans after finding out they were going to California Pizza Kitchen. It's a good thing cell phones don't come with buttons that let you strangle the person on the other end of the line, it would have had much use if it did. We were in the Hollywood area with nothing but my wits to guide us, and enough money for something cheap 'n cheerful. We almost stopped at the Tommy's on Hollywood Boulevard just off the 101 (may not be the most exciting of things, but at least it's something we don't have here in Phoenix), but then I remembered about Pink's hot dog stand on La Brea and Melrose. Thanks to the wonderfulness that is Google Local on cell phones, we were there lickety-split.

I am very, very glad we ended up at Pink's; they serve up one mean chili dog! I got the Today Show dog, which features two tube steaks, mustard, onion, chili, a slice of cheese, and guacamole, all on one bun. I wish the bun was a little bit more substantial, but then again, a bun that nondescript definitely doesn't compete with the toppings for dominance. Thankfully, the bun was sturdy enough to hold all of the toppings without conceding before you're done with the dog. The dog is easily one of the best I've had. I really appreciated the natural casings, and their chili is ridiculously good. We sampled sides of onion rings and chili cheese fries; neither one is all that great (they come frozen out of a bag), but the fries were a winner since they acted as a vehicle for more of the chili.

Again, thank you very much California hounds for your help on my journey, I really appreciated it. Hopefully next time, my friends will give me some advance notice so I can plan our eating better, but hey at least we didn't end up at CPK like the people we were supposed to meet ;-) Come on over to Phoenix some time, I'll be glad to show you around the best my hometown has to offer!

The Ratings:
(1 to 5, 5 is highest)

Wolf Creek Brewery
27746 N McBean Pkwy
Valencia, CA 91354
(661) 263-9653
Overall: 5
Food: 5
Service: 5
Atmosphere: 3
Prices: 3-4 (moderate to med-expensive)
Value: 3
Kid Friendly?: 4
Open Late?: No

709 N La Brea
Los Angeles CA (Hollywood)
(323) 931-4223
Overall: 5
Food: 4
Service: 4
Atmosphere: 3 (it's hard to go wrong with al fresco dining)
Prices: 1 (Cheap Eats)
Value: 3
Kid Friendly? 3
Open Late? Goodness yes.
NB: Cash Only

Saturday, March 11, 2006

A Tale of Two Gelati: Arlecchino and Gelato Spot

A friend of mine, the ever lovely Bellana, had a rather stressful week. It's one of those cases where you need really damn good ice cream, and a really fun movie. I decided for ice cream that we would go try Arlecchino, the new gelato place attached to the ever growing La Grande Orange complex on 40th and Campbell, right in the middle of the Arcadia district. I swear, 30 years from now LGO & Co. is going to take up the entire neighborhood with all kinds of chowish goodness. Anyway, I tried one of the special gelato available (I have no idea what it was called, but it was vanilla gelato with raspberries mixed in), and Bellana tried out the blood orange sorbetto. Both were... decent. I felt like my gelato was a little too airy and almost on the gummy side, certainly indicative of too much air allowed to mix into the finished product, and you really couldn't taste any of the small bits of raspberry sprinkled throughout. Bellana's sorbetto was quite firm (exact opposite problem, not enough air), but pleasantly flavored. There were a number of things that left me with a less than sweet taste in my mouth, all of them revolving around customer unfriendly policies. First is the ten dollar minimum on credit card purchases. I absolutely despise places that do this; to me it gives an air of two things, either my money isn't good enough for them unless I'm spending more than I want to, or they're desperate to stay in the black. Maybe both. There was also the oddity of two flavors costing more than the rest. If you go for a double scoop of the special Amaretto flavor, you'll drop seven dollars instead of the four that you thought you were going to spend. SEVEN DOLLARS for two scoops of ice cream? For money like that, it had better have me rolling on the ground in fits of ecstasy. Just bump the prices up by a dime across the board and get it over with. Next up in the line of issues is that half of the items are listed only in Italian. [We interrupt this review to bring you an important news flash... It is raining in Phoenix! Hallelujah! We now return you to your regular review.] I like to have the ['nother news flash... thunder too! I'm a native Arizonan. Close to five months without this makes one a little goofy for it] items shown in English next to the Italian word. While asking what the hell everything is is a nice way of getting to know the proprietor, I'd much rather be able to glance and automatically know "Ah, straciatella is chocolate chip!" Then there's their last policy... a two sample maximum. I'm indecisive as hell. I like to get as much information as possible before making my decision. Angel Sweet lets me taste a bunch of things. Gelato Spot lets me taste a bunch of things (and with as many flavors as they have, thank goodness!), why doesn't Arlecchino let me taste a bunch of things?

I decided halfway through my scoop that we should have an informal tasting, and try out the Gelato Spot on 32nd and Camelback for a side-by-side comparison. Upon arriving at the Spot, I was very relieved to find that we came in at a slower point during the night. If you arrive at a busy time, I hope you bring earplugs. Something about the painfully trendy girls who frequent the gelato spot has them all yipping at each other in high-pitched tones like the irritating thousand-dollar dustmops with legs... er, I mean... cute little toy dogs that they inevitably own. Add a high ceiling and hard surfaces all over the place, and even a few people in the place can make quite a racket. We were both craving lots more frozen deliciousness, so we each got the large, a three-scoop monster: Mine was key lime pie gelato, mango sorbetto, and blood orange sorbetto for comparison's sake; hers was passion fruit sorbetto, raspberry sorbetto (good for comparing to Angel Sweet), and strawberry cream gelato. Now *this* was ice cream heaven. The blood orange sorbetto here was everything it should be: Intensely flavored, just the right balance of sweet to acidity, and a texture of frozen silk. All of the flavors were fantastic, and great fun was had trying out different combinations of the six flavors between us (blood orange and raspberry... mmmmmm). There were some minor quibbles with the Spot, though. One is that I ran into the occasional chunk of ice, likely a remnant of someone not letting the rinse water drain off of the scoop before diving in. The other is that the noise level in the place makes it hard to communicate your order to the girl behind the counter.

I can now say that I have tried out all three of the major gelato choices in the Valley. My favorite... is still Angel Sweet. They may not have the mind-boggling array of flavors of the Gelato Spot, but their product is faultlessly smooth every single time, and the clientele know how to speak without squawking. I also greatly enjoy their somewhat unorthodox scooping method of smooshing down your selections side by side in the cup; it makes snagging a little bit of one flavor and a little bit of another that much easier. Yeah, I know it's a weird thing to notice. But still, I like it. Gelato Spot is a really close second. I love their creativity with the flavors, but those pesky yapping customers and icy bits in the gelato are just enough to keep me getting my main gelato fix at Angel Sweet. Arlecchino... I wanted to like it, really I did. Alas, weird texture, weak flavor, and a bevy of customer unfriendly policies leave it as the also-ran in the world of gelato in Phoenix.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Quickie: what was Fat Slim's on 40th and Camelback is now a trimmed down version of Soma Cafe, called Soma Express. Go try it just for the health of it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Jester Bite: Mr. Hunan, Tempe AZ

Quick service Chinese joint on University and Hardy; certainly not worth driving more than a few miles for, but if you're in the area and are in the mood for cheapie Asian food, it delivers good bang for the buck.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Review: PB Loco, Scottsdale, AZ

I started to notice some years ago that old-fashioned comfort foods were starting to get popular. Suddenly, new flavors of mashed potatoes sprang up on menus, the very comforting side dish of risotto became popular, and pot roast suddenly became vogue. It's rather nice in quite a few ways; if you've had a rough day and Mom is nowhere around to cook for you (or, if you're like me, mom isn't a good cook), no-nonsense, wholesome food is just around the corner. This movement has taken a couple of interesting turns. One that I have yet to try is Cereality, a place hidden in the Memorial Union on campus that lets you mix cold cereal with various topping to create your dream bowl of cereal. I'll let you know how that place is some time in the near future, if I ever remember it's there while they are open. Another funky comfort food shop is the relatively new PB Loco, located inside Scottsdale Fashion Square, on the top floor close to Nordstrom. As you may surmise by the name, PB Loco specializes in gourmet peanut butter. Many people are content with somply crunchy or smooth peanut butter; PB Loco does 10 other flavors, including things you may have already mixed with peanut butter like chocolate or bananas, to things you never would have guessed would go so well in peanut butter, like curry spices or sun-dried tomatoes. To get even more creative, PB Loco offers up a selection of 12 sandwiches, plus the opportunity to create your own masterpiece. Some friends decided to sample a bunch of different sandwiches, and so we descended on the place like the peanut butter crazed fools that we are. We tried six different choices. First up was the Cinny Nilla, with cinnamon-raisin peanut butter, apple slices, caramel, and vanilla cream cheese. Our next choice was the PBBLT, sun-dried tomato PB with lettuce, bacon bits, and cream cheese. Sandwich Number Three was the Latte Da, with mocha peanut butter, pretzels, and marshmallow fluff. We had another sweet choice with the Loco Coco, with dark chocolate PB, raspberry jam, and coconut flakes. We had a bit of a hard time selecting the last two, so we went out on a limb and got the Curry Spice (curry PB with cucumbers and pineapple bits) and the infamous Wacko (the same curry PB, but this time with pickles, coconut, and potato chips). All of the sandwiches come on decent bread (it wouldn't suprose me if they got it from Willo Bakery since that's where they get the peanut butter dog biscuits they sell at the register), and are grilled on a panini press, definitely a nice touch. The PBBLT and Cinny Nilla were expected favorites, as the peanut butter/apple and peanut butter/bacon combinations are already established favorites among more than a few people. The surprise favorite was the Curry Spice, with a nice blend of flavors and textures. The Wacko was the least favored (as you can expect); it was still quite good, but nowhere near the peanut buttery euphoria that came from all the other sandwiches. To top off the comfort vibe, each sandwich comes with a handful of animal crackers. My one quibble with PB Loco is that it ain't cheap by any stretch of the mind. It's really, REALLY good PB, but six bucks for a jazzed-up peanut butter sandwich? Ouch. But still, it's worth it for when you get a weird craving for peanut butter and just nothing but the wierdly addictive PBBLT or Curry Spice sammich will do. Of course, you could always get a jar of their peanut butter and take it home with you...